Safety training in Central America

What do you need to know and be able to do as a journalist in violent countries? That is what media professionals from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua learned in 2017 during our safety training. Free Press Unlimited invests worldwide in this type of training. Because safety – physical, digital and psychological – is a basic condition for independent journalism

Looking for cover when bullets fly over your head, coping with a kidnapping and completing a long march through hostile territory with heavy equipment on your back: it’s like a military exercise. But the Central American journalists didn’t carry a gun during the training we organised in El Salvador, just a camera.

Just breathe calmly

The participants learn to prepare themselves well; to think about where they are going and to distinguish safe from unsafe terrain. The right equipment, such as GPS, maps and a medical kit, is also important. Last but not least, the trainers pay a lot of attention to psychological preparation. Training in mental resilience during emergency situations is really not a luxury in these countries.

Alex Cruz, a journalist in Guatemala, knows that all too well. While filming gangs extorting minibus drivers, he was backed into a corner, had a gun put to his head and was robbed of his equipment. Alex lived to tell the story: during an intense simulation training he had learned not to panic. That saved him that night.

Trauma

Some journalists go out every night to report on the bloody tracks left by drug gangs and death squads. Almost without exception, they themselves are traumatised. An extensive extortion industry is active in Central America. Drug gangs routinely infiltrate journalistic organisations to get information. So, journalists leave home with the question: which life-threatening risks am I taking today to report the news?

Knowledge can be life-saving for these journalists. Drug gangs use a special language and stick to specific codes and signs. If you don’t know them, you are in immediate danger. If you want to enter an area run by a drug gang, you need to know who to talk to. What do you do if you are approached for information via social media? How do you deal with online threats, with shifts in the power of the cartels? The training also attempts to give answers to these types of questions.

Journalists in Central America work under extreme pressure, sometimes seven days a week. That can cause extreme behaviour that impacts the quality of their journalism. Surrounded by violence, they become edgy loners. For that reason, our safety training also works on self-insight, calmness and a better work-life balance. That too is a prerequisite for being able to deliver reliable news every time. News that matters to their readers, listeners and viewers.

Start project: 2016
Donor: Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Contribution: € 60,000


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